Along with Osaka and Tokyo - Kyoto, Japan is probably one of Japan’s most celebrated metropolises. Any trip to japan would be incomplete without a visit to the ancient capital, which to this day continues to be a bastion of Japanese culture. Coupled with Japanese standard fare, like a ryokan or tea ceremony, Kyoto also has the appeal of being home to multiple world heritage sites.
You’re bound to encounter beautiful scenery and architecture on any itinerary: a shrine, imperial palace, geisha, onsen and delicious food. Suffice to say, with a wallet full of Yen, there’s little to get bored of in Kyoto. What is a bit difficult, however, is knowing the best places to both stay and explore the various cultural experiences Kyoto has to offer.
Superprof invites you to discover all the different districts Kyoto has to offer. Discussing the best districts for cultural and historical world heritage sites, shopping, dining and staying, this guide will walk you through everything you’ll need to know about your trip to the land of the rising sun as well as some upcoming, fascinating exhibitions, events and festivals in Kyoto.
Kyoto City Centre
Kyoto can be characterized as a mix of environments, architecture and époques. The centre of Kyoto is no exception, comprised of many districts: Kamigyo, Nakagyo and Shimogyo. The first thing you’ll run into there is the Kyoto Imperial Palace, residence of past Shogun during the Edo period - most known for the famous military general Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
From Kyoto station to Gion, the centre of Kyoto typifies what most people think of when calling up images of Japan: traditional and modern. Tucked next to the futuristic train station, you’ll find your first Buddhist temple on your journey: Higashi-Honganji or Nishi-Honganji.
Off to the side, it will be possible to visit Shosei-en garden. After having walked around the city centre and want to taste delicious street food, Nishiki is worth exploring if you’re looking for traditional Kyoto treats, such as fish.
If world heritage doesn’t really interest you, or if you want to find the perfect souvenir for a friend, Teramachi and Shinkyogoku are the perfect places to practice some retail therapy. You’ll be able to find traditional fare reflecting periods like the Heian period as well as electronics, restaurants and bars. The souvenirs you’ll get here are better than any you can find at the Kansai airport or Kyoto main station.
A fan of manga? Here, you’ll be able to find the international museum of manga which retraces the history of the art.
Some of the other sites you can take advantage of in the area include:
- Nijo Castle
- Kyoto tower
Check out our Kyoto travel guide for more!
Arashiyama: The District in the West
The Arashiyama district will offer you a peaceful and traditional experience: farther from the modern pop culture typical of Akyhabara and manga culture, this district can offer you the zen atmosphere you’re looking for. The area, also referred to as Sagano, has been enjoyed since the Heian period, from cherry blossom season to winter.
Some of the monuments and world heritage sites you’ll be able to visit in the Arashiyama and Sagano area include:
- The Bamboo forest
- Togetsukyo bridge
- Tenryu-ji Temple
- Torokko streets
- Daikaku-ji and Adashino Nenbutsu-ji temples
- Kyoto monkey park
- Iwata Mountain
The only disadvantage can be found in the location - if you’re strapped for time, make sure to plan accordingly if you want to visit this district as it is farther from the city centre. The area is also quite popular so, depending on which day you go, it might be filled with just as many tourists as the city centre.
Higashiyama: The District in the East
Higashiyama, situated in the east of Kyoto, is a district full of charm, beautiful landscapes, traditional monuments and modern infrastructure. Its architecture is typical of traditional Japanese culture, in the higashi - the Japanese word for east - you’re equally as likely to run into a pagoda as you are small, winding streets.
The district is located on the foot of a mountain where you can easily spend an entire day wandering around its streets. Being one of the best-preserved historic districts in Kyoto, you can experience traditional Japanese history by walking from Kiyomizudera to Yasaka shrine. Besides enjoying bites of Japanese foods from food stalls and restaurants, a good walk can also take you to the beautiful Philosopher’s Path and Ginkakuji temple.
If you want to take part in a traditional tea ceremony or relax in a spa, Higashiyama is your ideal destination. The number of UNESCO World Heritage monuments in this area doesn’t leave much room for hotels and hostels. To truly explore this area, fortunately, you don’t have to stay in it - finding a place in the centre suffices.
Other neat places in the East? Check out Ryozen Kannon war memorial or the Matsuri festival in July.
Gion: The Tourist’s Corner
From UNESCO sites and figuring out how to use the city bus to visit every zen temple your heart desires and taking day trips to other cities in the Kyoto prefecture, Kyoto has a lot to offer. If you’re looking for a look into Japanese style in the past, there’s no better representative of geisha culture than the Gion district of Kyoto.
Experience the history of Japan past a world heritage site and get insight into an art form that developed over centuries. Geiko, who train for up to 20 years, are professional entertainers at restaurants or formal events that perfect the geisha style - kimono and all!
This district is home to many other testaments to Japan’s history, such as the Shinto sanctuary Kiyomizu temple and Yaskakajinja. Past the Shinto shrine and temple, you can also enjoy the Maruyama park. Getting lost in this quarter can also help you experience well preserved, historic streets - Pontocho street being one of the most famous. The quick walk to the Nishiki market also makes it an ideal starting point to your journey.
While the Meiji and Edo periods are beautiful, one of the best ways to experience the past is to enjoy the present day celebrations of history that can be found in the cherry blossom festival, Hanami. Looking for the best accommodation or hotel Kyoto has to offer, this area is your best bet. More often than not, you’ll find yourself staying on tatami mattresses on your journey through Japan.
The South of Kyoto is where you will find some of the most impressive sites in Kyoto. Situated near the mountains, you’ll get an amazing view of the Kyoto landscape. The three main temples in the South include:
- Fushimi Inari Taisha, often known for its 10,000 torri gates and located in the Fushimi ward, this shrine is dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. From the head shrine Taisha you can hike to the top of the Fushimi Inari shrine and get amazing views of the city
- Tofuku-ji, which is the second most famous temple in the south after Fushimi Inari, is full of zen gardens and buildings
- Daigo-ji is ideal for those looking to admire the Cherry blossom celebrations
Arguably more infamous than the Fushmi Inari, the North of Kyoto is home to the brilliant Kinkaji temple - also known as the golden pavilion. Listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, it is a Buddhist temple that has the most visited zen garden in the world!
Apart from Kinkaky, Ryoanji and Ninnaji are temples that are beautiful during all seasons. Kitano Tenmangu shrine is also a must-see for those looking for more beautiful works of architecture. For those who love spending time in nature, the North of Kyoto is home to beautiful mountains and hikes that span for kilometres.
If you have some more time in you itinerary, you can also take the Shinkansen, Kintetsu or Hankyu bullet train from Kyoto to Osaka. If you’re looking to make the most of the bullet train for your Japan travel needs, the journey to the capital of Japan will take you about 3 hours while the journey to Himeji will take you about 2 hours. The beautiful Hiroshim is a four hour train ride on the Japan rail.
Access to Kyoto city is possible from the three major airports Kansai International Airport, Osaka Itami International and Narita Airport. Some other recommended day trips are Hakone and Hokkaido. If you’ll be visiting many cities, consider getting a JR rail pass.
Now that you know a bit more about Kyoto’s beautiful districts, you might be interested in learning a bit more about the culture or the language. Take a look at some of the Japanese professors on Superprof’s platform!
Also, here are the best seasons to visit Kyoto!